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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Joe Cowley

Surprise, surprise, the Bulls find themselves in uphill must-win climb

With just 17 regular-season games left and needing a lot of things to go right just to make the play-in tournament, veteran Nikola Vucevic admittedly was surprised the Bulls are currently in this position. (Michael Reaves/Getty)

Every game has to be treated like a must-win.   

All 17 of them left against the likes of Milwaukee, Denver, Sacramento and Philadelphia, to name a few.

And even then, the Bulls will need some help.

Indiana has to remain in the rearview mirror, while either Toronto or Washington has to stumble. A lot of moving pieces, and that’s just for the Bulls to get in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.

So when veteran Nikola Vucevic was asked on Tuesday if he was surprised the Bulls find themselves facing this arduous journey, the center answered, “Of course.’’

“It’s not where we expected to be,’’ Vucevic said. “We know we have more talent and we should be better than we’ve shown. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you thought they would for whatever reason. It’s not always easy to deal with because you expect more and you want more and you put in more than what you’re getting, but it is what it is at this point.

“We have these last 17 games and we have to fight until the end, and hope things work out for us, we can get into the play-in and go from there. The whole season hasn’t been what we thought it would be.’’

It isn’t what many thought it would be.

While the Bulls used their share of smoke and mirrors to win the No. 6 seed last year and finish two games above play-in status, they still had two All-Stars in Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, and won 46 games with a roster that spent more time in the training room than on the floor.

It wasn’t a championship roster by any means, but it was a core that an executive can like.

Or in the case of Bulls executive Arturas Karnisovas? Love.

Enough so that he brought it back mostly intact, adding Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond. Dragic is no longer with the team, while Drummond is a rotation player depending on the match-up that night.

Even when this season was nose diving at the trade deadline last month, Karnisovas opted to stay the course, becoming only one of two NBA teams – Cleveland was the other – to not make a single move.

And there the Bulls were as the practice at the Advocate Center wrapped up on Tuesday – getting ready to head off to the Mile High City and face a Nuggets team that was 30-4 at home.

“I made the comment when the season ended that this was going to be a really hard year,’’ coach Billy Donovan said when asked about where the Bulls have fallen. “The East had gotten better, and there were some things that really went our way. I don’t want to sit here and say that everything that happened our way was luck, but we had a lot of good fortune. We were very close to not even being a playoff team.’’

Donovan was asked then why was the decision made to stay intact with this group?

“I knew there were things we were going to have to do at a higher level and be better at, and one of the things I felt we’d be better at is offensively … being a little bit more random,’’ Donovan said. “Some of the areas we’ve gotten better at and some we haven’t.’’

On too many nights, many they haven’t.

Now they have no choice but to do something they haven’t all season long, and that’s play consistent basketball and rip off a winning streak.

That was Vucevic’s hope, because hope is really all they have left.

“Crazy things have happened in this league,’’ Vucevic said. “We know we have the talent, and that gives us belief. We just have to find a way to do it night in and night out.’’

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